CFB 2020: Hope vs Reality

How much risk is too much risk?

Photo: Patrick Barron

I don't know you guys. It just might not work out this year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, answered that question earlier this week when asked by NBC’s Peter King what might happen if four players tested positive. “You got a problem there,” Fauci told King. “You know why? Because it is likely that if four of them are positive and they’ve been hanging around together, that the other ones that are negative are really positive. So I mean, if you have one outlier (only one player testing positive), I think you might get away. But once you wind up having a situation where it looks like it’s spread within a team, you got a real problem. You gotta shut it down.”
While the initial wave of Covid-19 infections is flattening, most experts agree that, like with all viral infections among a population with little immunity, another (potentially bigger) wave is expected in the months ahead. Turns out, that second wave could come right when fall sports are hitting their stride.
“We will have a harder time controlling coronavirus in the fall ... and we will all be very tired of social distancing and other tactics. The hard thing will be to keep enough of it to protect our ICUs and keep the number of cases from flaring up,” he said.

Controlling the virus may call for a return to the tactics that have worked in spring and a continued focus on maintaining resources such as personal protective equipment and increasing viral testing.
First and foremost, let's talk about the inevitable risk of infection among players and coaches when team activities begin this summer. That's really the beginning and end of whether college football can happen or not this year. We're talking about a team sport comprised of 115 or so players, a dozen coaches, another few dozen support staff including grad assistants, trainers, doctors, student managers, video crew, etc etc etc. All told, we're talking about 200-250 people actively working in close quarters for hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. 

No social distancing or face protection will occur among players and coaches. It just can't. And even support personnel will be hands on with players and gear all day, every day. The way this virus spreads seems to be through close personal contact. You can't get more close personal contact than football.

Any rational expectation says that a with no social distancing and no community immunity, a spike in infections is inevitable. No collegiate athletic director or school president/chancellor is going to allow that level of risk on their campus on their watch. If one person is sick, odds are a lot of people are sick. And even though the mortality rate is very low for college-age players, the greater risk to older coaches and the campus community at-large will put a swift end to team activities.
"I think it's unrealistic to think that we won't have positive tests on campus and positive tests in locker rooms," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN. "Somebody somewhere is going to have that occur, and they'll have to deal with it." [Link]
The key to sports happening this year will be testing. Not just a lot of testing...a ton of testing – daily testing of everyone. 
"This is not simple," American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. "It's easy to say we're going to test everybody, but what does that mean and how is it going to be done? That's going to be the key to everything we're doing. We have to get it right."
For a program like Michigan to get it right – with somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-250 or so people actively involved with team activities for 4 months straight, to test everyone daily, you're talking about 28,000 or more tests for a full season. And of course they can't exist in a vacuum, they'll need teams to play against. All told, we're looking at up to 1.8 million tests needed this fall for all 65 power-5 programs.

I think schools are going to do everything they can in the meantime to prepare and try to make college football happen this year. Right now on May 21st, as the virus recedes, there's a ton of optimism. Because it's big business for every university, and no one wants to envision their 2020 books without a football season and the dollars it brings in. So of course, hope springs eternal. But sooner or later some difficult questions are going to need to be answered.

But what about the games? What about crowds and bands and cheerleaders and stadium workers and refs and cameramen and media? What about away games and air travel and locker rooms and team meals and hotels? How can you keep everyone safe all of the time? And if you can't, how much risk tolerance is there? How unsafe is too unsafe? Is it worth it?

Maybe we'll know more in the coming weeks about this virus that will help ensure a safe path to college football this fall. But if we don't have answers to these questions soon, I don't see how schools could possibly pull the trigger on a full or even abbreviated 2020 season.

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